After spending an hour talking (and sometimes crying) with classical pianist and activist, Tereza Lee for this profile piece, I left with just one word on my mind. Extraordinary. Tereza has known poverty, hardship and more than her share of tragedy, yet she has managed to become a quietly fierce, extremely humble, unassuming powerhouse of a woman. Extraordinary beyond measure.
After the Korean war, Tereza’s parents lost everything. This included acres of land covering a mountain area and a huge farm with thousands of apple trees, goats, chickens and hens. Forced to sell their property, when the chance came to leave their motherland, her parents took it and became part of a massive wave of Koreans who moved to South America. Tereza Lee was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1983.
Her parents had a successful clothing business in Brazil, until one day a family member stole Mr. Lee’s checkbook and forging his signature, robbed the family of every penny. Despite having lost everything once again, Mr. Lee did not want to report his own family member to the police. Instead, Mr. Lee decided to sell Mrs. Lee’s wedding ring and other jewelry in order to buy Visas and plane tickets to the United States. “They decided to start all over again.”
It was June 1985 and two and a half year old Tereza was on a plane for the first time. Tereza recalled, “I don’t remember Brazil but I actually remember the plane ride. In front of me there was a chair and all of a sudden a tray appeared out of nowhere and I was given a hamburger and a coke – the American icons – right?” When they first arrived, the Lee family stayed with a distant family member in Brooklyn for a few months. But, as any NYC parent can relate – the Lees figured out quickly that raising a family in the Big Apple was hard and expensive. They heard that Chicago was more affordable and family-friendly so they decided to give it a try.
The Lees did not have any family in Chicago but they quickly joined a Korean community and found work at a laundromat. Mr. Lee, who became ordained in 1990, also eventually became the pastor of a church. Tereza’s brother was born in 1986 shortly after the family arrived in Chicago. The family of four lived in a basement that flooded every time it rained. They had no furniture except for a sewing machine on loan from the cleaners so that Mrs. Lee could work while watching her children. No heat, no hot water, bugs and mice were the norm. Food was scarce, as well. “Sometimes we went to bed hungry and I would starve until the next morning when I would get free breakfast and lunch at school. I was stick skinny, I remember weighing fifty pounds when I was in sixth grade.” When asked what she thought about her family’s living conditions when she was growing up, Tereza responded, “The basement apartment, the flooding, the mice and the bugs and the no heat and hot water, I thought that was normal because that was all I knew. Until I went to school and I realized that other kids didn’t have that kind of upbringing. Everyone else had more than I did. I had one pair of clothes – a t-shirt, pants, shoes. Other kids had more. We didn’t have toys growing up. We didn’t watch tv so I didn’t grow up with tv culture. I caught up when I went to college though – big time!”
When Tereza was seven, her dad gathered the family saying there was something serious he had to share with them, “That was when he told us we were undocumented. That meant that we didn’t have a certain piece of paper and a certain nine digits…that we could become separated if anyone ever found out about it…So I grew up fearing that something would slip and so I didn’t have close friends. I grew up very muted and shy.” On discussing the level of pressure that must have been for a child, Tereza shared that she grew up having nightmares of the police breaking down the doors to their home. Her father repeated the warning several times throughout Tereza’s childhood. Despite the fear this instilled in his children, Mr. Lee had to repeat the message in order to protect his family from being separated. “We would have been totally separated. I would have been sent to Brazil, my parents to Korea and my brother being a U.S. citizen would have gone into the foster care system in Chicago.”
Around the same time that Tereza first learned of their family secret, she also started playing the piano. Due to the generosity of a wealthy Korean woman who attended Mr. Lee’s church, the family received furniture including beds, desks, a table and even, an upright piano. Her father taught himself how to play and also forced Tereza to play for hours everyday. “And of course, we taught ourselves how to play with church hymns. He made me memorize a hymn per week at first and eventually I had memorized every single hymn in the book, about 500 hymns. By the time I was eight years old I was accompanying the church services.”
With expensive piano lessons out of reach for the family, Tereza continued to be self-taught, practicing for hours at a time. It was not just Tereza’s love for playing the piano that motivated her, but once she truly started to understand what it meant to be undocumented she felt she was at a dead end, “…and there was one thing I could do which was to play the piano so I knew I had to become the best at this.” This feeling of desperation of needing to be the best was instigated by experiences she had that all related to her being undocumented. When she was in eighth grade having had perfect attendance without a single tardy, from kindergarten through eighth grade, her school awarded Tereza a savings bond. “I was so excited about it because it was money. I ran home and showed it to my dad and my dad ripped it up because he said, ‘you are undocumented you can’t cash it.’ It went to the trash and I was so upset about that.” Similarly, when she was in high school Tereza had done so many hours of community service that she was awarded a scholarship toward college. Her dad ripped that up too.
Perhaps most impactful on Tereza was something that happened when she was fourteen. After participating in a school choir concert she and her family headed home. As they were about to cross a street, her brother walked a little ahead. He was the first one into the crosswalk when Tereza and her parents witnessed him go flying in the sky and come crashing down after being hit by a speeding car driven by a woman who was on her cell phone. The family thought her brother had been killed. Fortunately, he survived. While at the hospital with the driver present, the police wanted to write up their report. Mr. Lee quickly told the officer to document that the accident had been his son’s fault, that he had not looked both ways before crossing. Mr. Lee knew he had to do this in order to protect the family from being exposed about their undocumented status. “That incident made me realize we had no rights at all and that I had nothing. I was angry, not just angry, I was completely heartbroken. If people could imagine what a dead end looks like…that’s what it was like for me, for us. So the only way I could get up every morning was to tell myself I can at least be the best at piano.” Tereza started practicing sometimes ten hours a day. If there was no school, she would practice the entire day.
Finding a piano teacher became an obsession. Her search eventually brought her to the Merit School of Music, a school that caters to disadvantaged students. At the Merit School, not only did she receive lessons but she found a second home and personal sanctuary. She was at the school almost every waking moment that she was not at her regular school. The Merit School even gave her keys so she could practice anytime, anyday. At seventeen, Tereza won a major competition and had the opportunity to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She was the first “inner city” student to have ever won.
When it came time to apply to college, the artistic director at the time, Ann Monaco, asked Tereza which schools she was interested in. Tereza told Ms. Monaco that she wasn’t applying to college. To which Ms. Monaco replied by printing out ten college applications and handing them to Tereza with the instruction to fill them out and bring them back the next day. Ms. Monaco was more than just the artistic director, she was also a trusted mother-figure to Tereza. When Tereza was hungry, Ms. Monaco made sure she ate. Tereza brought the applications back the next day and shocked Ms. Monaco by the fact that she was born in Brazil. Ms. Monaco also noticed that the social security number was empty, so she instructed Tereza to ask her parents and bring the applications back again. Tereza took the applications back knowing full well that she would not be showing them to her parents. When she returned the next day with the social security number still blank, Tereza became extremely emotional, “freaking out” and crying. It was then that Tereza told Ms. Monaco of her undocumented status. “…she was the first person I ever told and she didn’t know what it meant. I begged, please don’t report us to the police because we could be separated.”
Tereza and Ms. Monaco discussed options. Together, they called Senator Dick Durbin’s office and asked the Senator to look into Tereza’s case. The Senator’s office initially confirmed what they already knew. Tereza was seemingly at a dead end. At the time, Tereza did not realize there were other undocumented people. She thought her family was in a plight of their own. Senator Durbin’s office thought the same. Senator Durbin wanted to help, so he drafted a personal bill on behalf of Tereza. Knowledge of the bill spread and the Senator’s office received many calls from other undocumented students. He decided to expand the bill and it became known as the Dream Act. With sixty votes lined up, everyone was confident that the bill would pass. Tereza was accepted and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music with her status listed as “in process.” The hearing was set for September 12, 2001. Tereza was scheduled to fly to D.C. the day before. The morning of September 11th, “…after my history class I came out and I was ready to get in a cab to LaGuardia but 9/11 had happened and I had no idea. And I had no idea what it meant.”
The hearing was canceled and the Dream Act is yet to pass. Tragically, during the summer of 2002, Ann Monaco was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Tereza had been staying at Ms. Monaco’s house, “one morning she went out for a jog and never came back.” Ms. Monaco’s death was extremely difficult for Tereza and she battled with feeling suicidal. Fortunately, for Tereza, it was during this time that she met the man who would become her husband, Danny Kirkhum. With his love and support, Tereza found the strength to keep going.
After dating for approximately two years, Tereza and Danny were married. They now have two young children, a son and a daughter. Becoming a mother for Tereza was, “… very healing. When I gave birth it was extremely powerful. I gave birth naturally, no drugs and that was so powerful for me. Somehow, I overcame (all of the trauma) and I realized how powerful I am to bring a baby into the world. And I did it twice!” Tereza’s parenting style is mindfully different than that of her parents. “I don’t beat my kids. I don’t yell at my kids. I want to teach them what the world has to offer but at the same time protect them. But not be overprotective. My dad was overprotective not just because he was Korean but because we were undocumented.” Sadly, Tereza’s father passed away while in need of a kidney transplant. His undocumented status prevented Mr. Lee from getting the medical care he needed.
Nowadays, Tereza is working toward her PhD in music at the Manhattan School of Music and continuing her advocacy work on behalf of undocumented immigrants and the Dream Act. When asked how it makes her feel to be known as the “Original Dreamer” she responded, “I’m not sure it matters… some undocumented immigrants today are saying that they think the Dreamer rhetoric is something that throws our parents under the bus because it’s exclusive to a certain number of immigrants. We have to fight this one thing at a time and eventually we will fight for comprehensive immigration reform because that’s what this country really needs.”
After telling Ms. Monaco about her family’s undocumented status back in 2000, Tereza Lee knew she had put her family at risk. And she was afraid – very afraid – but she also felt that she, “…had to prove to my family and to my teachers and to my school and to my country that I had to stay. That I deserved to stay. The way I responded to (the fear) was to practice even more, even harder. Yes, I think the determination overshadowed the fear.”